Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton: Learning new ways to maintain and use valuable resources

Recipient of the Crop Trust Legacy Award

Nicola Temple, Scriptoria and Michael Major, Crop Trust

Just after Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton started his PhD, he was asked to review a manuscript which described a very complicated experimental design that would enable people to breed plants more successfully. In the introduction, the author stated that none of this would be necessary, of course, if the full DNA sequences of plants, and the functions of the genes contained within those sequences, were known.

Ruaraidh thought this was fanciful material for a Star Trek episode rather than a manuscript. “I said to the author, ‘You’re thinking too far ahead, we will never live to see this.’ But I was wrong. By the early 2000s we knew the whole genome of rice. The thing I thought would never happen in my lifetime had come to be, and it changed genebanks completely.”

When he read that manuscript Ruaraidh had already been interested in plant genetic resources for a number of years.

He was in the second year of his undergraduate degree at Cambridge in the United Kingdom when his eyes were first opened to the astonishing way in which living things can change from generation to generation. He found it “mind-boggling.” Ruaraidh started taking as many applied courses on plant genetics, plant breeding, plant ecology and statistics as he could. He recognized the importance of conserving diversity and he recognized that his career path was laid. At the end of his undergraduate degree, he was invited to stay on and complete a PhD in plant genetic resources conservation.

A few years later, Ruaraidh was working as a documentation consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and entered a CGIAR genebank for the first time. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria was only three years old but already had a functioning genebank. “They had a large collection of dryland cereals and legumes there, which was really impressive,” Ruaraidh recalls.

The ICARDA seed store was well managed but, as it was 1980, most of the documentation was still on paper. “They had a mainframe computer where they kept some information, so I spent a lot of time pulling together their paperwork and electronic records,” Ruaraidh said. “It left a big impression on me as to what could be done, even in those early days, and what still needed to be done in computerizing genebanks.”

In 1984, Ruaraidh began working at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to develop a documentation system that would help both breeders and genebanks. The experience opened his eyes to the complexities of their information needs and challenges, and to the emerging technologies available to help.

By 1991, Ruaraidh was Head of the Biodiversity Group and Genetic Resources Unit at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) in Wales, where he was in charge of the UK’s national forages collection.

After 12 years at IGER, Ruaraidh was back in the CGIAR, having taken up the role of Head of the T.T. Chang Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. The plants he was dealing with now were as dissimilar from those at IGER as the volcanic islands of the Philippines are from the rolling Welsh countryside. It was a steep learning curve in more ways than one.

Accessions with stories

Ruaraidh appreciates the many good stories which lie hidden amongst the accessions at IRRI. It is these stories which fascinate Ruaraidh and have kept him excited about his work for more than 30 years.

For example, one unique sample at IRRI, collected from a field in Nepal, has two rice grains rather than one inside each spikelet. The variety is called Laila Majnu, named for Layla and Majnun, two lovers in a forbidden romance – the 12th century Persian equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.

Many of the accessions in IRRI’s collection have similar interesting stories behind their names. “There’s one that is called ‘three houses’ when you translate it from the Laotian,” Ruaraidh said. “It earned this name because the aroma is so strong that you can smell it three houses away.”

The story of ‘divorced wife’ is that when a woman first cooked that rice, it was so delicious that she ate it all herself rather than sharing it with her husband. Apparently, those are reasonable grounds for divorce in at least one place.

IRRI has a rice called ‘Te Puke’, which is from New Zealand. It is at this point that everyone says, “But rice doesn’t grow in New Zealand.” Mānuka honey, apples and lamb – definitely. But rice? Even the IRRI genebank staff thought it must be a mistake. A New Zealand radio crew was at IRRI doing a story on the genebank, and Ruaraidh told them about this oddly named accession. When the radio program went out, a farmer from the New Zealand town of Te Puke phoned in. He said that it was his rice and that his was the only farm in the whole of New Zealand to grow rice. His family has been farming the rice for 100 years, when the farmer’s grandfather first brought it to New Zealand from Japan. And this rice has been adapting to New Zealand conditions ever since.

The most challenging aspect of working with the diversity contained within a genebank is knowing which, out of the hundreds of thousands of accessions, each with a story such as these, should be used to breed for a particular trait. “Before efficient and affordable DNA-based methods were available, plant breeders pretty much relied on a guessing game to pick accessions which might hold the key to the traits they were looking for,” Ruaraidh said. “So, a largely random selection of accessions would be chosen and tried. Unless there was something in the name, of course. It’s a very slow and inefficient process. Now, the genetics of each accession can be determined, taking away guess work and completely changing how genetic resources are used.”

The genebank community

Genebanks in the CGIAR Research Centers are now organized under one umbrella – the Genebank Platform. Ruaraidh sees big benefits from this in terms of establishing a global community working together toward a rational, effective and efficient worldwide system for conserving genetic resources outside their natural habitats.

The global community can promote measures such as putting common standards in place and speaking in one voice in policy discussions. “Establishing a global system like this is not just a technical challenge,” Ruaraidh said. “Constructive engagement in international policy development and understanding the views of all the stakeholder groups involved are also critically important to ensure that the system meets the needs of all concerned.”

Ruaraidh describes a pyramidal model for a rational, efficient global system of genebanks. At the base of the pyramid you have millions of farmers conserving and using plant resources who need to be supported by breeders with their working collections further up the pyramid.

In turn, breeders need to be supported by the next level in the pyramid, active collections in national and regional genebanks, which in turn need to be supported by global collections. At the very top of the pyramid, an ultimate back-up is needed – the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This, he explains, would be a rational system. If a crop is important to a country, then that country should definitely have its own breeding program for that crop. But it doesn’t necessarily need its own active genebank for that crop. “There could be regional or even global cooperation for that crop because conserving is difficult and expensive.”

However, for such a system to be effective, as well as rational and efficient, genetic resources must be freely accessible for use by anyone. That is possible only if there are measures in place to ensure that benefits arising from their use are fairly and equitably shared. As it is, most countries want their own genebanks and have concerns about releasing their plant genetic resources to other countries in case they are misused. This results in very costly redundancies. “It’s inefficient and not a rational system at all,” Ruaraidh said. “But until we get the access and benefit-sharing principles sorted out, it’s going to remain inefficient.”

It is such issues – the politics surrounding plant genetic resources – that Ruaraidh considers to have been one of his greatest challenges in genebank management. In the 1980s and 1990s, concerns emerged that private companies were freely accessing plant genetic resources from developing countries, improving upon them, protecting these improvements as their own property and then selling expensive products back to developing countries. Many countries became reluctant to share their genetic resources – wild and cultivated – as a result. Much has changed since then, not least the coming into force of the International Treaty on PGRFA, but plant genetic resources continue to be a delicate issue politically.

Looking forward

As well as acknowledging the political sensitivities that future genebank managers will undoubtedly have to navigate, Ruaraidh is concerned about future funding, not only for the physical genebanks themselves but also for training the next generation of genebank managers.

“Genebanks aren’t viewed as particularly productive in terms of generating impact. It is the breeders who have the impact. When donors are wanting to generate impact from their investment, most will invest in a breeder over a genebank. It is equally difficult to get funding to train genebank managers. There are no courses left – the last few that existed at UK universities are no longer.”

Despite these concerns, Ruaraidh is excited about what the future holds for genebanks and thinks that it’s this very excitement that should be harnessed to draw in funding and skilled professionals. “It isn’t about putting something in a fridge, and it shouldn’t be seen as that. New technologies – whether you’re talking about DNA sequencing, informatics or robots – are bringing about opportunities to change genebanks completely. To make them into something that is much more efficient. We can do much more, at a higher quality and at lower cost. We have these very valuable resources that we must maintain as they are, but we have to learn new ways of doing the job better. To me, that’s exciting.”

When it comes to his own future, Ruaraidh is clear about what he’ll miss most about being at IRRI – his team at the Genetic Resources Center. “The team is so effective: each staff member has their own specialty, which they know very well. They’ve trained me much more than I’ve trained them.”

Indeed, the team at IRRI, Ruaraidh included, has worked well together for 15 years to find ways to improve the way the genebank is managed and used. Ruaraidh is particularly proud of the advances they have made in facilitating connections between the genebank and breeders. Ruaraidh credits the team’s ability to effectively rethink and invent new ways of doing things for the improvements they’ve made to the genebank operations over the years, but as Head of the team he has clearly helped to foster an environment in which innovation is not only possible but encouraged.